Last Breath—A Can of Swiss Air

Last Breath—A Can of Swiss Air

While we say goodbye to 2012, I wanted to share a story about choosing joy in the midst of sadness and suffering. I didn’t think it could be done until I watched my friend and next door neighbor, Trudi, die last November. Trudi was Swiss and determined. Instead of a funeral, she chose a party for her closest friends and family.

Everyone who knew Trudi knows generosity of spirit was one of her greatest traits, and her choice to squeeze joy out of her final days is a constant reminder of how I’d like to be in this new year full of uncertainty for so many of us.

Uncertainty? Trudi would  probably give me a quick shrug and smile if I asked her. What’s so uncertain about the present? I need to remember this and that presence is a great gift.

During a bedside visit in her final three weeks, Trudi told me about her last trip to the hospital. She tore off her heart monitor and IV, lay them neatly on the sheets and requested to call her daughter. At 88, she was through with the sirens and surgeries, the poking and prodding, the panicked and too frequent rescues from the paramedics. October 28 would be Trudi’s last ambulance ride. She had led an active and independent life. She wanted to come home to die with her family and friends surrounding her.

The doctors gave her three days. She gave herself three weeks. Trudi was ready to depart but not that ready. She had a plan— a beautiful, methodical, mystical plan to wake us up to joy with her death.

First Impressions

The morning after my husband and I moved into our house five years ago—newly engaged, we opened the front porch to find a huge basket filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, shiny green peppers, and a hand-written note from Trudi welcoming us. I was struck not just by Trudi’s sincerity and how beautiful the vegetables looked in the light of that September morning, but by the kindness of our new neighbor: the tiny Swiss woman with the sparkle in her blue eyes.

When I reached down to pick up the basket, I remember seeing yet another surprise: a small bundle of roses, freshly picked and de-thorned, wrapped in a wet paper towel and tinfoil. The kind of roses that smack you sideways with their sweet scent and pure beauty.

I love roses but what I loved even more about Trudi’s roses particularly was that their arrival on our doorstep had just turned our first house as a couple into a “home.” In no time, Trudi had already touched us with her kindness and generosity of spirit.

When I learned how much Trudi loved to read, I immediately set about reciprocating her welcome basket by delivering books to her as often as I could. I didn’t know how fast she read, but soon found the books returned to me in brand-new Zip-Loc baggies with more hand-written notes: little Post-Its with Trudi’s brief but poignant book reviews.

“Oh, I loved it. I didn’t want it to end,” she would write, then often read the books again.

She devoured books so much that we have not had to buy many ZipLoc bags in the last five years. I honestly don’t know anyone, other than her granddaughter, who read as much as Trudi.

A Friendship Through Books

We started to spend time talking about books, what she liked—a good escape, she said, something with mystery but not so intense that it kept her up all night reading, even though it did. From our bathroom, I often saw the light in her room at night and smiled, thinking how happy the author would be knowing his or her words were being savored in those late hours.

Sometimes she didn’t savor every word. Once, I found her at the door with Hilary Clinton’s tome. It looked like it weighed a million pounds, and there Trudi was holding it with one hand, pumped by something I rarely saw in her: anger. She caught my eye when I swept over the title and she pronounced in her Swiss accent, “He was a little shit.”

I’d never heard Trudi swear before and stood there pleasantly stunned. I loved that Trudi could get so into a book, no matter what she was reading, that she literally embodied the storyline. It was the first time I’d seen a bit of her feistiness and it made me love her even more. As her husband Clorimondo always said, “She’s the boss.” To which she always smiled.

Whenever we visited, time always slowed down in a good way, and I appreciated this silent reminder to live a life more deliberately, with less emphasis on acquiring anything and more on just being. Trudi showed me that a good book and a healthy garden were all she needed to be happy. I don’t think she ever wanted anything new. She just wanted more experiences: a Sunday morning at Rodeo Beach, an afternoon walk down the lane, and time with her family. There was a constant joy and spirited pulse to the rhythm of Trudi’s life, and it seemed to ground my husband and I when we started our own family.

Over the last five years, Trudi had delivered more than vegetables and roses in our life. She provided constant cheerleading and encouragement in whatever stage I had found myself, professionally and personally. She had become my friend.

One Last Gift

She gave her final and greatest gift of generosity in the last three weeks of her life. While I did not see her every day, my husband and I kept a watchful eye—in case we could do anything to help—even though we knew Trudi didn’t much like to be helped. She wanted to be the helper, and of course it was Trudi’s grace that helped us to accept the reality of her situation. She allowed us a glimpse of what it means to live and die with dignity.

During one bedside visit, she looked through her and her daughter’s wedding album, reliving the details, the backyard redwood tree that grounded and sanctified her daughter’s ceremony. The roses scattered on the patio bricks. The black and white photo of the ‘cowboy’ who walked her down the aisle and gave her away (she was from Switzerland and had no family here).

During another visit, she pointed to the can on her tray. I first thought it was sardines. Who knew, Trudi loved sardines? I thought she was a vegetarian, who only on occasion drank a cup of chicken bouillon. Trudi read the confusion on my face and picked up the can. “Someone brought me Swiss air,” she said and laughed. “So I could breathe it for my last breath.” The can was already opened, the aluminum curled back. She shrugged, smiled and laughed again. “Oh well,” she said. Oh, well? That was so very Trudi.

Poised. Positive. Present and strong. Accepting what is and what shall be. May we all be as lucky as Trudi to have our loved ones with us in our final days, to have the kind of closure on our lives, to look back without regrets, to savor the details we remember about the most significant moments of our days. Like Trudi, may we experience joy in the midst of our suffering and uncertainty. I wish everyone a bright, joyful new year. Wherever it may lead you on your journey, may it lead you back to your heart.

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